HOLYOKE — Alternative sources of electricity such as wind and solar may be clean, but one of their chief drawbacks is reliability.
Enter the University of Massachusetts Amherst, which, in a collaboration with Holyoke Gas & Electric, is working to create a system sturdy enough to power computer servers. The servers require continuous electricity, whether the sun is shining or the wind is blowing, according to Prashant Shenoy, a UMass professor in the college of information and computer science who is leading the research.
Professors and Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse unveiled the facility at a ceremony late last month.
“The main problem is not a new one,” Shenoy said in an interview. “Any data center has lots of servers and there are data centers like Google runs or Amazon and they are very large data centers. Their electricity bills can be millions per month. That is a large amount of energy to generate to keep these things running. They draw from fuel plants and that makes the carbon footprint high.”
To address this, UMass, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Center have sited a data center in Holyoke. The center is small — about 200 square feet — but still requires constant reliable electricity.
When it can, the center draws electricity from adjacent solar panels. When the panels are not drawing enough power from the sun, a backup battery system charged by the solar panels takes over. When the batteries have run dry, the center will draw power from the electric grid.
The reason to place the facility in Holyoke, according to Shenoy, is that Holyoke Gas & Electric uses hydroelectric power, meaning that none of the electric sources of the center will come from fossil fuels.
“I should also mention the servers themselves in this facility will be low-power and consume less electricity, which is another way of reducing electricity,” he said.
Shenoy, along with Simi T. Hoque, an assistant professor in the Department of Environmental Conservation, and David Irwin, an assistant professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, will study patterns of electricity use, including how often the center must get its power from the grid and during what times. Shenoy said he hopes to continue the research for at least five years.
James Lavelle, general manager of Holyoke Gas & Electric, said the research will benefit his company and many others.
“The more we can reduce our peak demand, the lower our costs are for transmission,” he said.
The research will provide it data about how efficient the battery storage system is as well as how they can be used to reduce dependence on an electric grid.
“The computer science department is analyzing the output from our solar facilities and will couple the output with weather-pattern analysis, so we can better forecast what the output of solar panels will be over time and more effectively balance the power supply as needed,” he said.
Shenoy said he hopes the research will be able to be extended to apply to the large data centers used by large computing firms, and eventually to all types of buildings.
“We’re really excited to be working on this research and it has been a great partnership with other colleagues in other parts of the university,” he said.
Dave Eisenstadter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.